Beyond Belief: ~ by Elaine Pagels (Notes)

  1.  FROM THE FEAST OF AGAPE TO THE NICENE CREED   Pagels opens the book with a brief but important bit of her own spiritual development,  the story of her son’s death in 1987 and her landing in a church congregation.  (Her husband died suddenly in 1988, but she doesn’t mention that.)  She then started questioning the belief system of that church and how it came into being.  Since 1982 she had been a professor of religion at Princeton – she didn’t go in ignorant.

The narrative then goes into the background of the main story with information about the – Christianity and the other religions, no charging money,  a family),  the  Didache –  a very early Christian writing,  the various versions of the story of the Last Supper and the crucifixion.   Each version of the various Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke anyway)  are loaded with meaning and symbolism.  John is quite different from the other three in several ways,  all leading to the idea that the Passover is directly connected to the Crucifixion and they’re still connected to the church.

So how did John’s writings make it to the Canonical Catholic Bible while Thomas is barely mentioned? (Doubting Thomas)?   The Council at Nicea decreed it was so mostly in order to decide between the numbers of weird sects which had sprouted up by 325 and make the other sects or ideas heresy – calming the situation.  Constantine was the 1st Christian Emperor (306-337 AD)  and wanted it done.   This is how it all came about:

2.  GOSPELS IN CONFLICT:  John and Thomas

Gospel of John is very compelling – most spiritual? –  Jesus is a super-human presence who tells his followers to “love one another.”     John’s gospel is quite different in message, events reviewed,  and chronology.   John apparently had a specific reason for writing his book – (or telling his story to be written down) and that was to present Jesus as God-above and not as any kind of God-within.

The writings of the “early Christians”  are not clearer or simpler.  There were controversies even then.

The Gospel of Thomas is similar to that of Matthew, Mark and Luke but has other sayings of Jesus.

Gospel of Thomas, translated by Professor MacRae: “Jesus said: ‘If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.’ ”  Kindle Locations 409-411.


Both John and Thomas, for example, apparently assume that the reader already knows the basic story Mark and the others tell, and each claims to go beyond that story and reveal what Jesus taught his disciples in private.   (Kindle Locations 508-509).

John has about 5 extra chapters of “intimate dialogue between the disciples and Jesus as well as a great deal of monologue.”   The Gospel of Thomas offers  “secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke and that Judas Thomas wrote them down.”  (Kindle Locations 511-515)
The narratives are quite different –  John has Jesus being present from “in the beginning”  and “God’s only begotten son”  and “the light of all humanity.”   Thomas says that the light is within us – we are all made “in the image of God.”

This difference between the “light of Jesus” or the “light within” became huge and John won.   Another difference is where the “kingdom of God”  is and when it will come.   Thomas says it’s here and now and inside you and people don’t see it.   John said it was coming and he meant physically.

John is the only apostle who specifically states that Jesus is God.  This is radical and far different from Matthew,  Mark and Luke who most likely saw Jesus as a man “although one gifted with the Holy Spirit and divinely appointed to rule in the coming kingdom of God.” John probably knew what Thomas wrote and was disputing it in this gospel.

This chapter shows the differences between John and Thomas as well as,  briefly,  the other gospels.



Gospel of Thomas vs Buddhism –  Western Christianity is based on John –  Thou are not God.  Christians have had to go elsewhere for an affinity with Christ.

How did the Christian tradition as we know it today come to be that –  while other ideas were suppressed?  It was between 100AD and 200 AD that this happened.

Polycarp wanted unification and pushed for John’s message to be accepted.

 Tertullian,  from Carthage,  was also upset about rumors and stories of evil done by Christians. There were whole books about it.   Polycarp and Justine Martyr and Bishop Irenaeus.   Just a few of many names in this chapter.

Christians were persecuted – martyrs named – admired by other Christians,  but some Christians doing the persecuting.  All across the Roman Empire a charismatic movement in various forms was growing and worrying the authorities as well as other Christians.  Visions and prophesying were common among the new movement.  Rome was full of spirit-filled people.

Irenaeus saw these people as “dangerously deviant”  –  including Valentinus and Ptolomy.    But many episodes in the Gospels include dreams and visions – to say nothing of Paul of Tarsus.  And the miracles continued.  One Christian named Marcus was especially singled out by Irenaeus who actually called him Satan.

The main point of this chapter is whether miracles and prophesying could continue after the disciples were all dead.  Irenaeus seemed to say no,  the charismatics said they certainly can.  Marcus was very mystical with overtones of Kabbalah.  This was a threat to Irenaeus’ attempts to unite Christians.

Paul and James write about visions –  there were guidelines in Jewish traditions to bring on a vision or a presence.   This kind of thing goes back to the Old Testament.   Secret Book of James. 

Mary Magdalene had visions and there is a Gospel According to Mary  How to distinguish genuine visions –  Irenaeus and the author of that Gospel disagree about how to distinguish authentic visions and prophesies.   Iranaeus developed a method because he had to in order to accommodate the visions mentioned in the New Testament books he accepted.


The literary and emotional impact of the Gospel of John.   But the truth of other Gospels?  Irenaeus looked at the Gospel of Truth and thought it was a lot of “evil interpretation.”  And the Round Dance of the Cross  (Acts of John) is an interesting bit of extra material and/or interpretation.   Each person sees something different in Jesus.

And John had some rather outlandish things to say in his Acts of John and The Secret Book which are prime examples of the  “Evil Exegesis”  Irenaeus rails against.   The Gospel of Philip was also problematical to Irenaeus due to his non-literal ideas on the virgin birth,  baptism,  and resurrection.

Irenaeus was seeking to unify the Christians and had to come up with some pragmatic answers.  He wanted to end the oppression and he wanted to use the most accepted versions – the ones which did not demean other Christians and so on.  He was not intolerant or dogmatic –  he needed to make it work to unify the very different sects.


A little more of Pagels’ personal life and then back to Irenaeus.   His problem was how to get his own ideas of the correct way of reading and interpreting the Bible?   He chose Matthew,  Mark, Luke and John but why John?  –  He was convinced by Ptolomy’s argument.  John 1.1-3 and more and explained them himself in various books,  most importantly “Against Heresies.” (which was just about all Christians knew about the gnostics until the discovery of the bundle of writings at Nag Hammadi.

Coming up with a Nicene Creed was a bit of a challenge even if Constantine did order it be done and hand it over to the bishops.

But then Athenasius, the bishop of Alexandria,  further focused and directed Catholic thought and interpretation.


It’s a complex work Pagels goes into all of this with detail sufficient to give solid background into her own beliefs which are more in line with those of Thomas and the ideas of the Christ within.

Pagels writes very clearly and nicely but the book is very   dense with info – this book had me Googling for all manner of things – other gnostic   writings,  their writers,  etc